Theory: Drive’s Heroism and Reincarnation
Potential Spoilers for Drive, Valhalla Rising, and Only God Forgives
No matter how complex a story is, if it can’t be boiled down to a basic line or two, your movie might lose its audience. A lot of movies can seem complicated when it’s really about something easy to grasp with the details just making it its own.
And while Drive really is pretty simple (This driver tries to save a woman and her son from the mob), it’s movies that are simple on the surface that are the most open to interpretation in what they’re really about. Here’s an alternate take, or rather an elaboration, on the story of Drive.
Upon your first viewing (and many after that), Drive is about a man who drives. Stunt car driver and mechanic by day, getaway driver by night. After coy looks between him and his neighbor, the Driver becomes involved with her and her son. But once her husband is released from prison and forced into his old lifestyle working for the mob, the Driver decides to help and so begins a whirlwind of violence with our leading man trying to save a mother and son from a vicious syndicate.
While the themes of Drive remain the same and the movie being about a guy that saves a family doesn’t change, how it happens could be by way of entirely different reasons. the film could easily be about a man that knows where and when he’s going to die and races to get there so he can be reincarnated.
How and why? We’ll get to that but we can start by putting it out there that the Driver is not human. He’s the embodiment of a hero that goes through different bodies over the years and the entire movie is leading up to an inevitable point where a hero has to make the sacrifice to get out of his current form so he could be born into someone else.
First, let’s take a look at what the director of the movie, Nicholas Winding Refn, says not only Drive, but his directorial efforts before and after Drive, Valhalla Rising, Only God Forgives and their leading characters.
“[Audiences] forget the equation because it actually went from Valhalla Rising to Drive to Only God Forgives because the character of One-Eye went into Driver then went into the Thai police lieutenant. They’re the same character played by three different actors…It’s a mythological creature that has a mysterious past but cannot relate to reality because he’s heightened and he’s pure fetish.”
From Refn’s perspective (He wrote and directed Valhalla and Forgives, but did not write Drive), there’s more to these characters than the simple actions they commit. According to that same interview, the original script for Forgives included more of an explanation of the supernatural undertones in the film but Refn chose to exclude them in favor of making an Asian film rather than a Westernized one.
In Valhalla Rising, the setting is the Viking era and follows a man named One-Eye, played by Casino Royale’s Mads Mikkelson.
He’s a man who goes by One-Eye and nothing else due to his having only one eye. Fitting, right? Though he has vague visions of the future and uses this and his body as a weapon (much like the Driver) to help save a little boy. The backdrop is a depressing one, of grey skies and mud. This would be where the “Hero” character begins as far as we’re concerned. His character becomes the Driver at some point.
In Only God Forgives, the Hero is in the form of Lt. Chang, played by Vithaya Pansringarm.
While the marketing led audiences in a different direction than the film took us, the Hero is this little Thai officer rather than Julian, played by Ryan Gosling. Personally, I thought Gosling would be performing a similar role as he did in Drive but as it turns out, he’s little more than a lackey for his crime boss mother, while Lt. Chang is the Hero. He’s even partly credited as “Angel of Vengeance.” This is who the Driver has become since his reincarnation.
But let’s stay on topic with the Driver specifically.
First of all, let’s look at the guy’s name. His name is The Driver. Shannon (played by Bryan Cranston) calls him “kid” and there are other ways he’s addressed, but Driver is the closest we get to his actual name. The more I’m typing it the more I can imagine a celebrity naming their baby this, but it’s still an odd name. The Driver is all anybody knows him by. This not only puts us in the position of knowing what he does, but also keeps us from knowing him any better than just by what he does.
Remember in Kill Bill Vol. 2, where Bill (David Carradine) describes the difference between Superman and all the other superheroes? He talks about how all the heroes are regular people like Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne. They put on their costumes to become Spider-Man and Batman, while Superman is Superman. He has to pretend to be Clark Kent. He’s got to fit in somehow so he can do what he does- save people. This is the same with the Driver. He’s the Hero in human form, and maybe something as huge as an angel (See Chang above) with a human shell.
So if One Eye is to become the Driver, he’s upgraded from a one-eyed man in the mud with vague visions of the future to neon lights and fast cars. Where One-Eye is a savage, Driver is quiet and has come more into his own. There’s not really much of a struggle for his character and given quieter scenes to himself, Driver always seems to know what to do.
This is the Hero coming to understand why he’s even on earth. One-Eye and the Driver are like the difference between a superhero getting their powers and learning to use their powers. The Driver is always in control of the situation even if he’s not fully aware of what’s happening. He seems to have a sixth sense, displayed in several scenes where whatever skills he’s acquired throughout his life give him the edge in every life or death situation he’s put in.
What the Driver shares in common with other heroes isn’t as obvious as films like Spider-Man or The Dark Knight where the guy literally puts on a costume, but the signs are still there.
First of all, Driving is in this guy’s blood. In his apartment, he works quietly on car parts after a long day of…working on car parts. Superman has his strength (and everything else), Spider-Man has his webs, the Driver has cars. Hell, his apartment number is 405. The movie’s background is of course, LA and 405 is a major north-south highway running through Southern California. Vehicular mechanics are his powers/abilities.
And keeping with the superhero motif, his clothes are the same nearly the entire film. That freaking scorpion jacket. Like his version of the bat or the spider, the scorpion is this guy’s symbol. He hardly takes it off and even though it becomes increasingly covered in blood, dirt, and oil, he never takes it off to leave it off. Why? This is his disguise. No one will catch him and nobody can stop him because he’s the Hero and he’s on his mission, the mission of (t)his life. Before this, no one even knew who he was but Shannon, and Shannon doesn’t know anything about the Driver but what he can do.
So while you or I couldn’t commit a crime without onlookers taking notice of our faded black t-shirt representing our website without reporting it to the cops, the Driver wears a bloody white jacket with a golden scorpion on it yet it doesn’t stand out to anyone.
But the Driver knows he has a meeting with fate and nothing can stop him until that point. He’s doing everything he can to meet his own death.
So what is he meant to do? Like Superman, he’s meant to save. Who, of course, is Irene and her son. Standard is beyond saving and he’s the reason Irene needs help in the first place. But it’s not enough for him to die for any sort of debt to be paid. Before Standard is shot, his family is in danger. Once Standard is gone, events will still lead to the family’s possible harm. So something has got to be done.
And while many hoped for a happy ending where The Driver ends up with Irene and (just maybe) they even keep all that mob money, that’s just not in the cards for the Hero. He knows it, but did you? When you first watched the movie, did you think the Driver was going to go back to the woman down the hall?
As Refn puts it, “The Driver was meant to become a superhero, and he’s denied all these things—relationships, companionship. And why would he be denied that? It was because he was meant for something greater.”
So while the mother and son need to be saved, this story is also about the Driver himself making his sacrifice to achieve his next life. And he knows it.
Here is the definition of what’s called a “Death Drive.” proposed by Freud-
…the drive towards death, self-destruction and the return to the inorganic: “the hypothesis of a death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state.”
Look at what the Driver does to test himself. Aside from putting himself in life or death situations anytime he decides to act as the getaway driver, he chooses to be a part time stunt man, putting himself at risk every time he works.
And why? Because he knows he can’t be hurt, so he’s just playing out his life, waiting for his moment. Anyone around him can be hurt or killed, but he’s untouchable until a certain point comes along. Take the man that meets him in the diner to give a quick sob story about what happened to him after he and the Driver worked together, as well as most other characters he comes into contact with- he’s surrounded by death but he is invincible and is aware of it.
It’s not until the major events of the film begin to take place does he know what he needs to do and what’s going to happen to him; his transformation into “something greater” is imminent.
So while the Driver isn’t going back into an inanimate state as the definition of a Death Drive states, the title of the film and what the Driver does certainly fit with what we’re going for; everything the Driver does in the film is leading to his own sacrifice and he’s the only one that knows this, which is what makes him the Hero in the first place.
There’s no great sacrifice in taking on all comers when you know you can’t die up to a predetermined time, but it is true heroism if you take specific actions to lead up to the only thing that can kill you. In this case, the tradeoff for the money with mob boss Rose.
But before that, the Driver attempts to bargain his way out of death, just once. He may be the Hero, but he’s still in human form and has thoughts and feelings as a human would. Just because he knows he needs to die doesn’t meant he wants to. Even if you knew that dying meant going on to a better life, would you just run off a cliff or wrap your car around a streetlight? The Driver goes to Irene to tell her he’s still got the money and that he, Irene, and her son could get out of there; just escape. He could watch over her like he’s been doing in a sense.
But she rejects this offer with a slap to his face. And he simply accepts it because he knows offering dirty money to a woman whose husband was already in too deep with the mob is not the way to save her.This is where it really begins as they step into the elevator.
The lights dim when the Driver moves Irene back to kiss her almost as if the supernatural is at work (This would also explain the strippers acting as statues when a complete stranger in a scorpion jacket shows up with a bullet and a hammer and begins threatening their boss). You don’t screw around with fate and the physical world is being affected by the Hero’s abilities. But it’s a kiss goodbye rather than the traditional “They finally got together!” moment.
Fate, if you will, keeps putting them together as we’ve seen with their living arrangements and consistently fortuitous meetings at the grocery store and auto shop, but now fate is a-gonna rip’em apart. With the elevator doors shutting at the end of the clip, we’re seeing on the Driver’s face what he needs to do as pure adrenaline rushes through him; he can’t be with her and he won’t live a normal life. This is represented with the doors shutting and the two being on opposite sides of it. Her in an open parking lot with doors and possibilities and him caged in a golden box with a dead body.
It even ends with focus on the Scorpion to foreshadow what this guy’s got to do now. Similar to a dog knowing its death is near and finding a place to die, the Driver has to search for his death which is his sacrifice.
And why does this guy not care about the money? With all we’ve been talking about the supernatural it seems a bit clear, doesn’t it? Money is nothing compared to the objective of becoming the Hero. Nearly everyone is murdering and maiming each other for the stuff except the Driver and Irene, which is one reason Irene and her son are worth saving.
So what have I been saying this whole time? The Driver is going to meet with fate and die so he can be reincarnated in another body? But he doesn’t die! He drives away! He goes his own solitary way off into the night. Sure, we thought he was dead, but then he blinked, and he left.
What I’m proposing is that he did die.
Think about it. He was stabbed, quite brutally, in the stomach.
After a prolonged shot of him sitting in the car absolutely motionless, it’s his one blink that lets us know that he made it. But in what sense? This guy gets stabbed in the gut, he’s bleeding out, but then just blinks and drives off into the night? No hospital visit? No shot of the Hero bandaged, bloody, but overall okay?
Nope, none of that. He just “wakes up, puts the key into the ignition and we see the dashboard at night driving down the road. Before he pulls off, during his “death,” there’s even the golden sunset behind him, shining so bright we can’t see anything else behind him. He starts his engine, and begins his trip. Maybe he physically left, maybe the leaving of the parking lot is symbolic altogether in the Driver leaving his earthly body, but the point is, there’s no need for him there anymore and he’s going to continue on his path.
After his sacrifice, he leaves the body of the villain lying with the money. This is where he belongs and since it’s so important to him, he can lie with it on the dirty pavement. But the Hero? He can’t take it where he’s going, as they say. He’s never cared about the money and it’s value is absolutely worthless now that he’s moving on. He’s even leaving his form doing what he knows best- driving, of course.
As soon as the Driver makes a motion for the ignition, his theme ignites as well. College and Electric Youth’s “A Real Hero” feels even more fitting with these ideas in mind.
The reason we focus more on Julian in Only God Forgives is because the Driver is now the complete and perfect being found in Chang, “The Angel of Vengeance,” as opposed to the Agent of Vengeance that the Driver was. Chang doesn’t change or have a purpose to achieve because he is living the higher purpose. Others fear him where the Driver was unknown and One-Eye was looked down upon.
Julian is a low level thug or a “lesser demon” if you’re going with the idea that his mother is a representative of the devil, which, something similar could be said of all villains in any story. But Chang is the Driver having achieved his higher form.
Here’s Chris Stuckmann’s explanation of Only God Forgives, which is pretty interesting.